Sunday 25 March 2018

Francis: Time to put Wilburys on the road out of here

IRFU has to stop handing out Irish caps to the mercenaries who arrive on our shores, writes Neil Francis

'Watching the Lions last summer, I thought the worst player on the park was Kane Douglas'
'Watching the Lions last summer, I thought the worst player on the park was Kane Douglas'
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A tourist, a rugby player, a New Zealander and an Irishman walk into a bar. He orders a drink . . .

Travelling Wilburys I call them – accidental tourists with a plan. Supergroup The Travelling Wilburys even had a song – End of the Line – a plausible ditty. The chorus says it all:

Well it's all right, riding around in the breeze

Well it's all right, if you live the life you please

Well it's all right, doing the best you can

Well it's all right, as long as you lend a hand

The first Travelling Wilbury to play for Ireland was Brian Smith. I played against Brian in the quarter-final of the 1987 World Cup against Australia in Sydney. Nick Farr-Jones walked into the gunfight that day and got a fearful smack in the snezz. That match was a good old-fashioned pitched battle. Brian Smith comes onto the paddock as a replacement and plays out the rest of the game.

Two years later, Smith is in Oxford University and his services are being touted around the four home unions. England weren't bothered. Paul Dean had his career ended abruptly by injury and so Ireland seemed to be a better choice than Wales or Scotland and so the Australian, who played for Australia but was now living in England, got to play for Ireland.

Smith had a grandmother from Wexford which pretty much sealed the deal. At no stage was he granted Irish citizenship or given an Irish passport, nor did he stay on the island for longer than several days at a time. It was plain wrong and the people who facilitated the whole charade should have known better.

I was friendly with Smith and I think he is a nice fella. After a season and a bit Alan Jones – Smith's mentor – headed back to Sydney and took up with the Rugby League side Balmain Tigers.

Smith, who would not have been universally popular in the squad, was gone a week later. As someone who was closer to him than most – I didn't even get a phone call. The hired gun was gone. Wearing the green? They will wear any colour and will wear any crest and they will sing the oompa loompa song before the start of a Test match if they have to. The IRFU had to go back to Ralph Keyes and Vinnie Cunningham cap in hand and say 'yoo de man now!'

A few years ago I remember listening to a member of the press corps who hysterically reminded me that Cameron Jowitt would be Irish-eligible in three months' time. The worst blindside since Napoleon invaded Russia. He was here on a tourist visa and someone thought that this Happy Gilmore would be worth a cap. Girls and Guinness, eh Cameron, and a few big European matches and you could tell your disbelieving grandchildren all about it. The triumph of happenstance over ability. He is probably still Wilburying away.

We have had a few Wilburys who got capped. Matt Mostyn – if he had a granny from Wexford I would have picked her instead of him.

I have always been unsure about Warren Gatland and I read a piece recently where he deliberated about who he would pick at outside centre in 1999. The choice was Matt Mostyn of Bordeaux-Begles ex-Sydney or Brian O'Driscoll of Blackrock College ex-Clontarf. Mostyn picked up six caps at Denis Hickie's expense and regales and baffles people in equal measure back in Sydney, that he actually played for Ireland, and at a World Cup as well. He is now living in Sydney full-time.

You have different forms of Wilbury. Michael Bent is actually entitled to play for Ireland. It is just that he is not good enough and never will be and he inexplicably got a contract renewal last week. This guy is a JCB without a bucket and he will use up roster space where players like Brian Byrne, who will have a long and distinguished career with Ireland and maybe more, and Tadhg Furlong, who is immeasurably better, don't get the game time they need because Bent is still in the squad.

I don't understand the IRB chief Brett Gosper who went on record to say that there were no plans to raise the period of residency from three to five years for prospective Wilburys. That at no stage was at issue. What is at issue is what a lot of these players do when they qualify.

Dan Parks arrives from Australia, plays for Glasgow and gets capped by Scotland – you would assume that he would buy into the Scottish ideal and embrace the thistle, and be a component of Scottish rugby. In 2010, Parks leaves Scotland and Scottish rugby and signs for big dough to play for Cardiff while continuing to play for Scotland. I contend that if you are a foreigner with a tenuous link to your adopted country then you stay and play in that country while your international career is still alive. Restraint of trade or money should never be an issue either.

Takudzwa Ngwenya leaves his native Zimbabwe, gets American citizenship and then buggers off to play rugby in France. Riki Flutey breezes in from New Zealand, plays for London Irish and Wasps, picks up a couple of seasons with England, gets to go on a Lions tour and then buggers off to France for the dough and when he is done, back to New Zealand with him. Where is the link? It is just mercenary. Transients should not get caps.

Back to my favourite topic at the moment – special or project players. Watching the Lions series last summer, I thought the worst player on the park was Kane Douglas. Australia were smashed up front. Maybe Leinster know something that I don't. Maybe Douglas will do a job in the second row for Leinster. The last couple of years they have gotten it either spectacularly right (Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn) or spectacularly wrong (Steven Sykes and Quinn Roux). Once Douglas has his deal confirmed, it looks like it's Goodbye Rouxby Tuesday even with a year to run on his contract. Roux, in my opinion, can't tackle, he can't carry, he can't win ball effectively at tight and he can't clear rucks – not a great cv.

Roux has been injured for most of his two years. A complaint levelled at Mark Flanagan and Ian Nagle who both had to leave their provinces because of lack of game time and continuous injury – but both are better players than Roux and, more importantly, Irish, and who came through the system only to be discarded for an impostor. I am surprised that Leinster persevered with Roux into a second season to the detriment of indigenous Irish players.

I am happy for Mils Muliaina to come to these shores – he was a serious proposition in his pomp. I am not sure if he knows what he is letting himself in for though. I suppose it rains all the time in Waikato too. His clubmate Bundee Aki – well, I'm less happy to see him arrive here. Handing out big dough to these players and then three years later giving them caps – this has to stop. No disrespect to the aforementioned, but if Ted Bundy could score a few tries, the IRFU would probably have given him a few caps. What does Robbie Henshaw think of the status of his new clubmate? The 'give Lifeimi Mafi a cap' brigade might think that it's worth the effort.

What do I say? I say trust your academies. I say don't hand out the green jersey to transients who couldn't care less about Ireland. I say I couldn't cheer for these soldiers of fortune in green. Wilburys? Time for the end of the line.

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